For the European food sector, 2017 was a year of significant developments. Food makers were confronted with challenges ranging from safety scandals to major policy shifts. In the face of adversity, the sector’s response was to deliver growth-driving innovations.
Regulation in the EU
Controversy was courted by the growing number of countries introducing regulations requiring country of origin labelling (COOL) across various sectors – from dairy and meat to pasta and rice.
To national governments in countries like France and Italy, COOL requirements are a tourniquet designed to stop their agriculture sectors bleeding out – and appease the powerful farmer vote in the process. For food makers, the additional labelling requirements are an unwelcome burden. But food sector body FoodDrinkEurope goes further, suggesting that this represents a significant threat to the principles of the Single Market.
Policy priorities in Brussels have focused on efforts to boost the food sector’s sustainability efforts, with food waste and climate change centre stage. European regulators have moved to introduce a legal definition of ‘vegan’ and ‘vegetarian’ foods and the simplified novel food regulations are due to be implemented next month. But debate looks set to rumble on over the EU’s highly controversial stance on glyphosate and acrylamide.
All the while, in the background, negotiations over the UK’s withdrawal from the EU rumbled on. As 2017 draws to a close, the food sector is less than satisfied with the progress made. With the Brexit deadline of March looming and scant progress on talks over the future trading relationship between the UK and EU, food makers on both sides of the channel will be hoping the pace of negotiations steps up in the New Year.
Alternative proteins and plant-based diets made further strides in 2017, with food makers focusing their innovation muscle on the category.
Strides were made in the development of new alternative protein formats. The likes of Unilever, Ingredion and Givaudan backed the development of a plant-based stake with the taste and texture to rival the real thing in the Plant Meat Matters project. Meanwhile, Swiss food giant Nestle revealed its plans to develop plant-based products and expand in alternative proteins in Europe.
Early signs also point to growing awareness around insect-based products as a viable alternative to conventional meats. While mainstream consumer acceptance remains some way off, this will be an area to watch closely in the coming years.
Technological advances like 3D printing and blockchain are also reinventing our understanding of the supply chain. Food makers continued to make strides on finding innovative solutions to some of the biggest questions around traceability, personalisation and sustainability in their supply chains. The disruptive potential of technical and process innovation was evident.
Ingredients were also firmly in the innovation spotlight. The food sector reacted to continued consumer interest in the ingredients space, forging ahead with efforts to 'clean up' labels. But while consumers don't want highly processed or chemical-containing foods, they do not expect this to come at the expense of convenience. Food makers are also under mounting pressure - from consumers and policymakers alike - to accelerate progress on reformulation efforts to reduce sugar, salt and saturated fat.